Naked except for a bath towel

Paul Addison

  • Churchill and Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence edited by Warren Kimball
    Princeton, 674 pp, £125.00, October 1984, ISBN 0 691 05649 8

The Second World War is no longer what it used to be. The populists of the New Right, aided and abetted by amateur historians of the mole-hunting variety, have been distorting it into a morality tale of the Cold War. Scholars may talk as they please, constructing complex patterns of interpretation for a minority audience: the popular ground has been won by the Chapman Pincher school of history, with its attendant band of novelists, journalists and politicians. The message they bear is a simple one: that the war against Hitler was merely a side-show in the truly decisive struggle of the 20th century – the battle between Freedom and Communism.

At times one might almost imagine that the war was actually fought, or ought to have been, against the Soviet Union. True, the appeasement of Hitler is recalled as a warning against the appeasement of Soviet aggression. But the new orthodoxy deletes from the record the embarrassing fact that appeasement itself arose in part from the inability to perceive any other enemy but Communism. The wartime alliance between Britain and the Soviet Union has come to be treated as a subject of scandal and concern, a shameful cover for the betrayal of the Poles and others by fellow-travellers at the heart of the British Establishment. What a crime for a great power to occupy a small nation and rule it along authoritarian lines! Yes, indeed, but for Soviet imperialism to stand out in its full iniquity, it is just as well to omit all reference to British or American imperialism – or, if pushed, to describe them as something else. How the Russians must chuckle when Fleet Street demands independence for Afghanistan. Don’t we all remember, comrades, the heroic struggles of the British Right on behalf of the colonial freedom fighters?

One of the choicest episodes in the rewriting of the past was the spectacle on the Normandy beaches last June, mounted on the pretext of commemorating the 40th anniversary of D-Day. What a triumph of ingenuity it was to transform a scene from the anti-Fascist war into a tableau vivant of the anti-Communist crusade. Especially in view of the fact that but for the Red Army’s achievement in pinning down the majority of German divisions on the Eastern Front, a successful invasion of Western Europe would have been impossible. But the D-Day celebrations revealed an intriguing gap in the mythology of the Cold War. It could hardly be concealed from the British viewing public that Ronald Reagan was walking tall on the Normandy beaches, looking very much as though he owned the film and television rights. This was not so appealing a sight, and a Presidential stroll along the White Cliffs of Dover would have been less appealing still. In constructing an anti-Soviet view of the past, Pincher and Co have failed to establish a pro-American one.

In British history agitations against Continental despotism have often touched off a profound response. The mentality goes back a long way, to the Protestant fear of an international Papist conspiracy. On the other hand, what alchemy of persuasion has ever had the effect of making the British love their allies? In the First World War the British authorities quarrelled vigorously with the French, and the attempts of publicists to sentimentalise the Entente Cordiale were a flop. In the Second World War the collapse of France in June 1940 was greeted with sighs of relief. Almost at a stroke, British hopes of salvation were transferred from the unreliable French to the mighty United States.

At this point in his life Churchill was, more than ever before, Jennie Jerome’s child, a strong, sincere, but rather frustrated pro-American. In his heart he never accepted that Britain and the United States were two foreign powers whose relations should be based upon separate calculations of national interest. He tried therefore to invest the alliance with an overriding racial, historical and ideological significance. He, more than anyone else in Britain, sought to popularise the doctrine of the special relationship. The two peoples, so the argument ran, had a common political heritage and tradition. They were the joint heirs of Magna Carta and the rule of the law, the custodians of the Glorious Revolution and parliamentary government, and the inheritors of a common English language and culture. Hence it was the manifest destiny of the British Empire and the United States to form a permanent association for the benefit of mankind. Churchill even went so far as to propose, in 1944, some form of common citizenship.

As an exercise in popular myth-making, Churchill’s campaign fell on stony ground. There was no earthly reason why Americans of black, Jewish, Irish, Puerto Rican, Polish, German or Italian origin should trace their roots back to Anne Hathaway’s cottage. On the British side, American cinema and popular music were in constant demand as a form of escapism into a fantasy world of extremely rich, good-looking, sexy and adventurous people. The stuff of youthful daydreams, the American way of life seemed to stand in utter contradiction to British reality, an impression confirmed by the arrival of exuberant GIs in sleepy provincial towns. An opinion poll of 1942 found that the Americans were much less popular with the British than the Russians were. A kaleidoscope of change has intervened since then, but if the majority of people in Britain today are not anti-American as such, they are hostile to President Reagan.

During the war the idea of the special relationship had some plausibility for the British élite, if little for the British public. Insiders knew that the Anglo-American alliance, with its Combined Chiefs of Staff and joint theatre commands, was a remarkable achievement and a dramatic advance on the ramshackle alliance with France. Even now officials on both sides of the Atlantic pay lip-service to the legacy of Roosevelt and Churchill, yet only the ghost of the wartime experience remains. An alliance that began as a partnership between equals has been transformed into an expression of American hegemony, with Britain reduced to the status of the other West European states. If Britain still retains some independence from the United States, it is mainly through membership of a European community.

When did the flaws in the special relationship first begin to appear? There were many symptoms of strain in the first decade after the war, when both the Attlee and Churchill Governments endured much quiet frustration at the hands of the United States. But the work of a number of British historians suggests that the analysis needs to be carried all the way back to the beginnings of the alliance. In other words, there was a worm in the bud. David Reynolds has characterised the origins of the relationship in an illuminating phrase: ‘competitive co-operation’. Alas for the British, the competition was an unequal one, a fact that Churchill himself began to realise during the last two years of the war.

The study of Anglo-American relations is now a great and variegated enterprise. Every level and dimension of the relationship, from the grassroots to the élites, from the cinema to Lend-Lease, has been thrown open to scrutiny. Both the British and the American administrations are in the process of dissection as the many agencies contributing to foreign policy are investigated and compared. In the midst of so much political sociology, and structural analysis of decision-making, Professor Kimball has hit upon a simple and old-fashioned but very effective contribution to the field. He has collected in three volumes the entire correspondence between Churchill and Roosevelt. Imagine the whole military and diplomatic conduct of the war in the West, shaken at every turn by unexpected crises and fiascos, and bedevilled by the quarrels of an immense cast of generals and politicians, passed in review through the correspondence of two highly literate men who bore the final responsibility. That is just about what Professor Kimball has given us.

Nearly one-third of the correspondence has never been published before. But the value of the collection goes beyond that. I would guess that at least half of the material in Kimball’s volumes has never before been assembled in one place, for readers to see as a connected series. Professor Kimball originally set out to publish a selection of the key documents, but once on the scent of unpublished items fell victim to archival fever and could not stop until every scrap of presidential and prime ministerial paper had been gathered in. One or two items may have eluded him, but otherwise everything is here: 788 messages from Roosevelt and 1161 from Churchill, plus the first drafts of letters and a number of letters drafted but never sent. There is even a brief transcription of a transatlantic telephone call: but otherwise rather than go right over the top, Professor Kimball has drawn the line at documenting the spoken word.

It will be a sad day for reviewers when the infallible editor appears and fortunately Professor Kimball does not qualify. He is not absolutely at home in British affairs and has managed to introduce a few minor errors on this front. He refers to the ‘Lloyd George Liberal Government of World War One’, refuses to admit Sir Stafford Cripps to the War Cabinet in 1942, and thinks that Balaam was ‘a name used in British literary circles to describe venal, time-serving political figures’. As a telling indictment of editorial incompetence, this may seem to fall rather short, and so it does. For without going into the full details of Kimball’s research, or his classification and annotation of the documents, it is sufficient to say that he has done such an excellent job as to leave practically nothing for the beginner or the specialist to desire.

If we set aside weightier considerations for the moment, there is a straightforward pleasure to be had from reading a tense and eventful correspondence. Churchill raises a point with Roosevelt – and one turns the page expectantly to find out what Roosevelt will say in reply. Of course the messages were seldom the exclusive composition of two individuals. Kimball notes where possible the authors of drafts submitted to Roosevelt, and with Churchill one may guess where a long passage on finance was prepared by the Treasury, or a section on UK oil stocks by the Ministry of War Transport. Yet if we allow for the composite origins of the letters, they still bear the unmistakable stamp of personal style and direction. Churchill’s imaginative surveys of the war and elaborate essays on grand strategy expressed a personal vision independent of the Chiefs of Staff or the Foreign Office. Roosevelt’s messages, though much less original in character, were often rounded out with a few casual sentences by a simple, plain-spoken Machiavelli.

As Professor Kimball points out in one of his many linking passages of interpretation, the relationship between Churchill and Roosevelt passed through several different phases. The correspondence began with a message from Roosevelt to Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty in the Chamberlain Government, in September 1939. Having only met once, the two men were strangers, and continued to be so during the crisis of Britain’s survival in the summer and autumn of 1940. Now that Churchill was Prime Minister, he amused himself by signing his telegrams ‘Former Naval Person’. But Roosevelt did not take up the hint of boyish complicity. In spite of the destroyers-for-bases agreement and the introduction of Lend-Lease, Churchill had good reason to fear that United States aid would be too little and too late. His telegrams to Roosevelt were strident with warnings and demands. As he remarked to Eden in May 1941, ‘quite unconsciously, we are being left very much to our fate.’

In August 1941 the two leaders held their first wartime conference. And though the United States remained neutral, an effective alliance was in the making. Henceforth the two men began to cultivate a personal friendship, the corollary of converging national interests. Roosevelt opened up to Churchill in his more casual and intimate style. ‘The Jap situation is infinitely worse,’ he wrote in October 1941, ‘and I think they are headed North – however in spite of this you and I have two months of respite in the Far East. Dicky [Mountbatten] will tell you of a possibility for your people to study – to be used if Pétain goes and Weygand plays with us. I wish I could see you again!’ With the entry of the United States into the war, all formal restraints disappeared and Churchill could roam the White House naked except for a bath towel.

Apart from their official messages, Churchill and Roosevelt exchanged Christmas and birthday greetings, portraits, photographs, and family chit-chat. Churchill even arranged for the presentation to Roosevelt of two privately-printed volumes of Kipling’s poems, some of them anti-semitic. ‘These two little books are gems,’ Roosevelt replied, ‘and I can well understand why they should not be made public at this time.’ On Churchill’s side the friendship was genuine. Talking freely within his private circle, he spoke with nothing but cordiality and admiration of the President. With Roosevelt, on the other hand, there was more than a touch of calculation. While exercising his considerable powers of charm and warmth to win Churchill’s confidence, he was in the habit of making wisecracks behind his back. As Kimball points out, Roosevelt was capable of a direct lie in order to deceive Churchill. Churchill, though relentless in pursuit of his aims and brilliant in exploiting the slightest loophole to slip them through, was an open book.

As Churchill and Roosevelt grew habituated to the power they could exercise in common, they began to speak the private language of confederates, exchanging jokes and contemptuous remarks about allied and neutral powers. Churchill could not abide the pretensions of Chiang Kai-Shek, whose code-name in the telegrams was CELESTES. Hence the otherwise cryptic message from Churchill to Roosevelt discussing accommodation for delegates at the Cairo Conference: ‘I have got the option on Tutankhamen’s tomb for CELESTES.’ The biggest aunt sally of the correspondence was undoubtedly General de Gaulle. For some time he was referred to in the correspondence as the Bride, since the allies were resolved to force him into a political marriage with General Giraud, the Groom. ‘The bride arrives here noon today,’ wrote Churchill to Roosevelt from Algiers in May 1943. ‘I thought Anthony [Eden] would make a better best man than I. I am therefore reserving for myself the role of heavy father.’ De Gaulle had little choice but to go through with the wedding. But he was no less resolved than before to challenge the perfidious Anglo-Saxons in the name of France, and continued to outrage them both. ‘It seems that prima donnas do not change their spots,’ Roosevelt observed in June 1944.

In his war memoirs Churchill concealed the full extent of his and Roosevelt’s opposition to de Gaulle. And from the British point of view, the value of the complete correspondence lies mainly in the filling in of gaps in the Churchillian version. As Kimball remarks, Churchill was also careful in his war memoirs to play down the extent of the differences between Britain and the United States. Churchill knew, better perhaps than anyone else, the gulf between the rhetoric and the reality of the special relationship. As we now know, he expressed great anxiety in 1954 over the presence of United States bases on British soil. Yet he was determined to safeguard the official doctrine of Anglo-American unity.

The publication in full of his letters to Roosevelt reveals one or two more cracks in the wartime alliance. These have always to be seen in the perspective of a brilliantly successful combination. The point is rather that the combination was never what Churchill wished it to be, the prelude to a lasting fusion of the English-speaking peoples. The studied neutrality of the United States throughout 1940 was a portent in itself. But this was forgotten when the United States entered the war, and for the next eighteen months or so, the two governments worked together in the closest harmony as equal partners. If Roosevelt expressed hostility to the British Empire, Churchill could brush the matter aside as being of little account. But in the last two years of the war, the allies began to fall out.

This was only to be expected when two foreign powers, thrown into each other’s arms by the appearance of a common enemy, began to sense the approach of victory. Churchill and Roosevelt still wrote as friends, or pretended to. But increasingly they represented rival national interests. Once the United States had larger armed forces in the field, Roosevelt began to assert a position of dominance. He made it plain that where there were strategic disagreements, the United States would override Britain. He made it plain that he intended to bypass Churchill and deal separately with Stalin. He made it plain that the United States would mount a commercial offensive to liquidate Imperial preference and open up the British Empire to the Stars and Stripes. Churchill was thrown back on the defensive. He wrote angry letters that had to be toned down or left unsent. When the Americans determined to switch resources from Italy to the invasion of the South of France in 1944, Churchill drafted a loud protest. ‘There is nothing I will not do,’ he wrote, ‘to end this deadlock except become responsible for an absolutely perverse strategy ... to agree to the whole great Mediterranean scene, with all its possibilities, being incontinently cast into ruin ... that I cannot stand.’ But the angry draft was never sent, and Roosevelt would not budge. Roosevelt, on the other hand, had nothing to lose by adopting a harsher tone. In the course of a prolonged wrangle over postwar civil aviation he went so far as to threaten that Congress would cut off Lend-Lease unless the British came to terms.

There the story might have ended, with Britain and the United States drifting apart like Britain and France after 1918. But then came a fresh twist in the plot, foreseen in the closing stages of the war by Churchill but not by Roosevelt, who didn’t live to see it. The Soviet Union replaced Germany as the enemy, and the Anglo-American alliance had to be recreated in a new form, as the mainstay of Nato. In subsequent years the Cold War has cast a spell over the British, but never so powerfully as to suppress undercurrents of radical and patriotic mistrust of the United States. Now they have come to the surface again there are signs that even in Whitehall a long overdue reappraisal is taking place. The Cold Warriors have taught us not to sell out to the Russians. If there is anything academic historians can contribute to political sanity, it is by pointing out that ever since 1940 we have been selling out to the United States. Now is the time to stop.